Bird Grandma

by Terri Ford

If a bird sang itself full of rainwater and tried to breathe through
that lake:  that’s how she sounds.  And the night in her mouth raspy
and open, discontinuous.    One blue eye
opens too much when you touch her arm and speak or lightly stroke
her forehead. She used to lie on the beach
in her tropical skirted two-piece swimsuit
with plastic DQ spoons on her eyelids.
She doesn’t eat  or talk or know
it’s spring          the way a deaf woman doesn’t know that birds
make sound. There’s a lake inside her rising up her ragged lungs;
its dark will drown her inch by inch.

From Hams Beneath the Firmament, Four Way Books

What the writer says about the poem: I spent the last few days of my grandma’s life with her, the first time I had been so near to someone dying, especially someone I loved and someone I resemble. When someone described congestive heart failure to me, that’s the image that came to me, how I understood it: a gradual drowning from inside. Birds are vital to me and are often in my poems. To me they’re spirit and freedom; I would love to have the superhero quality of flight.

Since I am far from a nature poet – more of an indoors poet – perhaps it’s strange, but it’s what birds mean to me, that ability to soar and transcend. Bird is the word. I am not sure this is in the poem, but being so near my grandmother in this intimate time, I was struck by how clear it was, after she became non-verbal, that there was someone at home in there. It was the blue eye opening.

I also went down the elevator with her when they picked up her body; I just wasn’t quite ready to leave her and it somehow seemed a way of honoring her body even though she didn’t live there anymore. I also wanted to nod to the person she’d been. Her name was Florence; we called her Flo when we thought we were funny. Flo was a gas, though often not intentionally – the woman did not have an ironic bone in her body. I asked her once, as a young teenager, why she worked for so many years, thinking, now I’ll get some insight into the womenfolk who raised me, now I’m going to learn about independence and productivity and feminism. She shrugged and said, “Oh, I thought if I stayed around the house I’d just sit around and eat.”

She believed all these crazy little things, like broken sugar cookies have less calories, only white cotton socks will prevent foot sweat, you should wash bananas. And she really did lie in the sun in her tropical two-piece (who wears a two-piece swimsuit over, say, age 45?) with Dairy Queen spoons on her eyes, which she called “taking sun,” a phrase I was and still am charmed by.  

Writing a poem from the gut changes the material into something … else. I mean, first it was a loss, and then writing it somehow takes me somewhere else. Am I speaking bird metaphor again? Poetry always takes me somewhere I never expected to go. For that, I’m grateful, and more than a little mystified. More about Terri Ford.


The Tooth Fairy

by Dorianne Laux

They brushed a quarter with glue
and glitter, slipped in on bare
feet, and without waking me
painted rows of delicate gold
footprints on my sheets with a love
so quiet, I still can’t hear it.

My mother must have been
a beauty then, sitting
at the kitchen table with him,
a warm breeze lifting her
embroidered curtains, waiting
for me to fall asleep.

It’s harder to believe
the years that followed, the palms
curled into fists, a floor
of broken dishes, her chainsmoking
through long silences, him
punching holes in his walls.

I can still remember her print
dresses, his checkered Taxi, the day
I found her in the closet
with a paring knife, the night
he kicked my sister in the ribs.

He lives alone in Oregon now, dying
of a rare bone disease.
His face stippled gray, his ankles
clotted beneath wool socks.

She’s a nurse on the graveyard shift,
Comes home mornings and calls me,
Drinks her dark beer and goes to bed.

And I still wonder how they did it, slipped
that quarter under my pillow, made those
perfect footprints…

Whenever I visit her, I ask again.
“I don’t know,” she says, rocking, closing
her eyes. “We were as surprised as you.”

From Awake, Carnegie Mellon.

What the writer says about the poem: This is an early poem from my first book, so there’s much I don’t remember, but I do remember thinking it was a poem I shouldn’t write, and if I wrote it, I should never read it, and if I read it, I should at least never publish it, and if I did publish it, I should only publish it in a little magazine no one would ever see, and I should never publish it in a book, if I ever published a book. The poem was first published by Pearl Magazine, out of L.A. which ceased publication in 2014 after a 40 year run. It was later included in my first book, Awake, (BOA Editions, 1990). When it went out of print at BOA it was picked up and reissued by University of Washington Press in 2007. When they went out of business it was chosen to be published again in 2013 as part of the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series which keeps book in print in perpetuity. So much for first thoughts. 

I’m not sure I’m “glad” I wrote it, but I had to write it, even if I put in a drawer never to be seen again. I’m glad I published it. I do know that it’s touched some people, those I’ve heard from, but that was, truly, an afterthought. I just needed to frame that moment, unearth that insight I came to as I wrote, imagining them in their hopefulness and innocence, their intention to do good, before they harmed anyone. I’m sure I was inspired by Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May, 1937.” And I’m sure her books gave me the confidence and courage to publish the poem. 

More about Dorianne Laux

The Attic

by Marie Howe

Praise to my older brother, the seventeen-year-old boy, who lives
in the attic with me an exiled prince grown hard in his confinement,

bitter, bent to his evening task building the imaginary building
on the drawing board they’d given him in school. His tools gleam

under the desk lamp. He is as hard as the pencil he holds,
drawing the line straight along the ruler.

Tower prince, young king, praise to the boy
who has willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow. He’s building

a structure with so many doors its finally quiet,
so that when our father climbs heavily up the attic stairs, he doesn’t

at first hear him pass down the narrow hall. My brother is rebuilding
the foundation. He lifts the clear plastic of one page

to look more closely at the plumbing,
–he barely hears the springs of my bed when my father sits down–

he’s imagining where the boiler might go, because
where it is now isn’t working. Not until I’ve slammed the door behind

the man stumbling down the stairs again
does my brother look up from where he’s working. I know it hurts him

to rise, to knock on my door and come in. And when he draws his skinny arm
around my shaking shoulders,

I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day
love a man–he sits there without saying anything.

Praise him.
I know he can hardly bear to touch me.

From What the Living Do, W.W. Norton & Company

What the poet says about this poem: The Attic was the last poem written for What the Living Do and when it was done I knew the book was finished. It came from looking at what had become an old story and then walking around that story to see another side of it. When I walked around the other side of that old story — what came of that walking was a song of praise. It was a great relief and deeply transformative. It taught me to turn around and to see what I have been missing by staring in one direction. More about Marie Howe

I Wish I Could Write a Poem Forgiving my Father

by Lisa Zimmerman

I don’t know if you have forgiven him, brother,
for keeping our house tight as a military barracks
our beds pulled at the corners so snug a dime would bounce
though we were not allowed to.
Outside in the dry heat of Albuquerque summer
you pushed the mower over grass
already standing at attention.

In the laundry room I opened the noisy dryer,
pulled out the dozen bleached handkerchiefs
with his three embroidered initials on the edge
and I starched them flat and folded them
and pressed the iron down again on each cotton square.

While our mother slept in a room with curtains
drawn closed against the day our father took
the sharpened clippers to the garage
and ran them over your head until you looked like him.
Afterwards I swept up your soft fair hair
and did not look at your sad boy’s face or the dust
glittering in the air of the outside world.

From The Light at the Edge of Everything, Anhinga Press.

What the poet says about this poem: The poem was first titled “I Wish I Could Write a Poem Forgiving My Father” but ended up with the title “Forgiving My Father” in my book The Light at the Edge of Everything. That was an editor’s choice. I feel the first title is more true. I wrote the poem after one of my students read a beautiful poem about his dad and I said, “Wow. I wish I could write a poem forgiving my father.” The whole class said, in unison, “Do it.” I think I groaned. My father had died just a few years before this and I thought about him for days following that class. Even though I had done a lot of therapy by then, I had trouble (codependent, I know) forgiving my father for his treatment of my brother. I tried my best and the poem came pretty swiftly when I started writing. I was dropped back into that house in Albuquerque, ironing my father’s handkerchiefs, my drunk mother asleep midafternoon in the bedroom down the hall. The heat was stifling. My brother and sister and I were cut off from the “glittering . . air of the outside world.” I feel now that the poem honors my brother and the children we were more than it forgives my father. More about Lisa Zimmerman

Shall we get started?

A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. ― Robert Frost

I am honored to post some of the most beautifully written, transcendent poems by my favorite writers, along with short statements that they have generously provided about the emotional experiences of writing them.